Monday, December 30, 2013

The Economics of the Shoes-Off Rule?

Core Economics: No Shoes Allowed!

This is a really interesting essay, though it seems rather biased toward the anti-shoes-off position.

The author sets out to examine the cost-benefits of asking guests to remove their shoes. In her analysis, the actual economic benefits of guests removing shoes are minimal:

"This leads us to ponder the nature of the benefit. What is valuable about a clean floor? It is certainly true that maintaining some level of basic domestic cleanliness helps to contain diseases and prevent colonization by pests, but in the homes I have observed that feature the shoe take-off ritual, the general level of cleanliness is far above this basic level. Even if forty people were to come galloping through the typical shoe-take-off house in regular shoes (i.e., not having come right off a farm) for a party every weekend, I would expect no increase in pest colonization or disease prevalence provided that the household’s normal cleaning routines – say, a decent sweep or vacuum once or twice a week – continued. Then there is the question of the marginal wear and tear on carpeted floors caused by shoes: would a carpet stepped on by shoes at parties wear out more quickly than one stepped on only by socks or bare feet? A brief web search reveals that those in the industry believe that the lifespan of a carpet is far more affected by the owners’ innate propensity to redecorate, the type of carpet fiber, what is under the carpet, and whether the carpet is subject to regular cleaning, than by whether people walk upon it shod. Again, if regular cleaning continued, guests’ shoes should not be associated with worse outcomes."

This is a somewhat generalized analysis. In many cases, it will be true that homes with a shoes-off rule are kept clean to such high standards that allowing guests to keep their shoes on will not make very much difference at all. I do think there might be cases where this analysis is less applicable. For instance, some people with a shoes-off rule may not be 'clean freaks' at all, but people who work long hours with little time for cleaning. For them, the dirty shoes of guests might make a difference. Likewise, families with young children might be facing an uphill struggle to keep their homes clean and might benefit more from a shoes-off policy. There are also some homes which may receive visitors on a much more regular basis, such those of child-minders or religious ministers. For them, the economic benefits of a shoes off policy are higher than childless professional couples with reasonable spare time.

Having concluded that the economic returns of a shoes-off rule are low, the author suggests a number of psychological benefits to the owners of shoes-off homes:

1- The hosts are using the ritual to demand an `entry fee’ of their guests, which if paid (i.e,. if the guests do not turn on their heels and leave when asked to remove their shoes) places the hosts in an implicitly powerful position relative to their guests. The message is essentially, `if you agree to pay this price to enter my home, then what is available here must be valuable to you.’ 2- The hosts are signalling to guests their adherence to norms of extreme cleanliness that they believe are associated with membership in circles of success. They are hence basically trying to prove to their guests that they are people of standing. 3- The hosts are trying to prevent a rise in their own anxiety levels caused by the threat to their self-esteem that they would perceive if their floors were to become dirty. Ultimately this explanation boils down to social reasons, but for this explanation to be correct then the expectation of a clean house must have already been strongly internalized (through social conditioning) as a central part of the way the host views and judges himself, regardless of immediate social reward. 4 – The hosts derive pleasure from the sense of control over their environment that they derive from having perpetually spotless floors.

I would suggest that the host derives a much more tangible benefit. That is the benefit of consistency.

A consistently held shoes-off rule for the owners and their children will help to keep an home clean, even if guests are allowed to keep their shoes on. The problem is that rules tend to lapse when exceptions are made too frequently. If the hosts makes an exception for guests, then it becomes all too easy for them to occasionally make an exception for themselves and to enter with shoes on. They may find it harder to consistently enforce the rule for their children. Gradually, the policy slips away and dies a slow death. The standards the hosts once held ebb away.

The essay largely rests on an assumption that I would challenge, namely that the benefits of a shoes-off rule are only accrued by the host. The author writes:

"Now, given that a clean home is mainly enjoyed by those who live there, rather than by those who visit, any such benefits flow mainly to the hosts, meaning that we can immediately see that the entire exercise involves cost-shifting from the hosts – who would otherwise, perhaps, clean more – onto the guests."

Are there no benefits that the guests derive from a shoes-off rule? I think there are, at least for some guests. Firstly, some guests may enjoy the comfort and informality of going shoeless. Obviously, not all guests will feel that way, but some will. Secondly, some guests visiting a home where the rule is not enforced may be unsure of whether shoes should be removed or not. They may suspect the owner wants them off, but be unsure. Making the request provides a clarification that removes unnecessary anxiety. Thirdly, and in my opinion, most importantly, making a request for shoes-off implies that the host will show the guest the same courtesy should she visit her home. The guest knows that she is equally at liberty to require shoe removal from her own guests.

The author speaks of the guests 'bearing the cost' of the shoes-off policy, yet this cost is really rather low. The majority of people will not be bothered by having to remove their shoes. It is probably something they do in their own homes a lot of the time. There might be some people with holes in their socks or who are embarrassed by their feet, but this can generally be avoided as a problem if the guest knows in advance of the rule.


Bob said...

Interesting column. Never considered looking at shoes off as an economic exercise!

Kelly said...

Very good article, and very true. Making your guests take your shoes off is unhospitable - by doing so, you are essentially shifting the cost of your floor maintenance on them.

Kelly said...

Very good article, and very true. Making your guests take your shoes off is very unhospitable - by doing so, you are essentially shifting the cost of your floor maintenance on them.

Sandro said...

Kelly, the shoes-off policy is based on considering stockings/socks as indoor footwear, while shoes have been designed for outdoors. BTW Happy New Year )

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